|Issue No 46||17 March 2000|
The Locker Room
Peter Moss' Plea to the Swans
I can still remember the first time I watched the Swans play at the SCG - it was a dark day for the club.
A dark day for the weather too, as Sydney was thrashed by the lowly (and now extinct) Fitzroy in the cold, the wind and the wet.
That was 1994, when the Swans languished in a trough that extended through the first half of that decade.
Not long before, the team had played 18 months without a win. Some among the three or four thousand loyal spectators wept when the drought was broken with a 40 point win against the Melbourne Demons.
(Only one Swans fan was disappointed. He had bet thousands on the side to win by up to 39.5 points.)
Seems like a long time ago. The club finished an improved 11th in 1995 and played a grand final the following year. Since then Swans membership has soared to well over 20,000, including a strong Melbourne-based contingent.
The club is now a sporting and marketing success story, with regular finals appearances and a strong foothold in the lucrative Sydney market.
The great Plugger drawcard is gone but, judging from the Round One win versus St Kilda, the Swans will be more than competitive in the next few seasons.
Surely, for the many dedicated Swans fans in the labour movement, it's a case of "don't worry, be happy". Or is it?
Let's look at the typical Swans fan - there isn't one. As Max Cullen, currently treading the boards in David Williamsonís latest, might say: Fans aint fans, especially Swans fans.
Category one is the rusted-on fan. Like a died-in-the-wool ALP voter, this fan is likely to have grown up in an AFL state and doesnít know any other way. He or - with 45% of Swans members being women - she, will grumble about on- and off-field issues but, in the end, will cop it sweet. Sometimes it seems that grumbling is one of the great pleasures of rusted-on footy fans.
The AFL and the Swans management are not worried about category one members. But they are worried about category two fans. That's why the club, through the UTS Marketing School, has just sent a survey to 25% of members, but more about that later.
Category two is the football equivalent of the soft or swinging voter in a marginal seat, with one important difference. People have to vote for someone, but they don't have to follow a sport or team.
The explosion of interest in, support for and membership of the Sydney Swans is almost entirely due to category two fans jumping on the bandwagon. Sure, the Murdoch split in rugby league helped, but without Lockett and Sydney's stunning 1996 season, the great leap forward would have been merely a large stride ahead.
The category two fan is often labelled a theatre goer (as distinct from a 'real' footy person), but there is nothing wrong with enjoying the wonderful spectacle of a flowing, creative AFL game. Thereís nothing wrong with lapping up the carnival atmosphere of a packed red-and-white SCG on a sunny afternoon or floodlit evening.
The difference between category one and category two footy fans is time - time and tradition. Despite the deep (and overwhelmingly positive) changes to AFL in recent years, these things still matter. I believe that, among the complex motivations of the footy fan, many of us are yearning for solidity, community and tribal identification. We do not want to be sold just another product, or to ourselves be sold, once again, as a product to advertisers or anyone else.
Given time, the AFL and Swans brain trusts hope to move many category two supporters into rusted-on category one members. I hope they succeed in this project. But have they got the fundamentals right? While the club's marketing is brilliant, the experience of being a Sydney Swans member is not the same as that for members of traditional Victorian clubs.
Put simply, Swans members donít have a say in the directions or policies of the club. We are not members in the true sense, but associate members. It's a bit like being a member of One Nation. You can pay your money and cheer, but that is all.
A good example is the club's plan to move many home games from the SCG to Stadium Australia at Homebush. The club has never been really upfront about this strategy, I suspect because they understand that most current members love and prefer the SCG, with all that hallowed groundís beauty and tradition.
The club first 'informed' members of this fundamental change after the decision was made, and even then you had to work hard to dig out the news. Buried deep in a story in a Swans member newspaper in 1999 was this information: the club would play five of its 11 home games at Homebush from the 2001 season.
We now know that the AFL is contracted to play at least 11 games a season at Homebush. That means five less home games per year at the SCG is the minimum ñ if North Melbourne and other Victorian clubs do not elect to play their home games away in Sydney, then presumably the Swans will make up the balance.
While club members were not given the opportunity to influence this decision, the Swans have used regular member opinion polls to find out what we think or, from the questions Iíve seen, how much we are prepared to pay and what level of change we will accept while remaining members.
Like many organisations commissioning opinion polling, the Swans only release the results when these support a decision of the club. For instance, the results of an internet poll of members about the move to Homebush have not been released. But survey outcomes showing many of the clubís fans live west of Homebush were pushed out to the media.
The club would not have got away with this approach had it been Victorian-based. Members would have demanded a dialogue and a say. Through that process, members of major Victorian clubs have by-and-large accepted a change of home grounds, including recent moves to Colonial Stadium. But they were convinced of the benefits of change by their clubs, not simply measured up as consumers through opinion polling.
The exceptions are the Hawthorn and St Kilda clubs, former tenants of Waverley Park, which was closed down by the AFL this year in the face of strong public opposition.
The Australian Rules tradition of club membership with a say has been lost in Sydney - and so has the seemingly minor, but highly symbolic, tradition of giving the fans access to the playing field after the game.
Go to a game of AFL at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and you are likely to see something you can never see at the SCG. When the players and umpires have departed, a second siren sounds and hundreds of children invade the field. They race to be the first to reach the centre of the ground. They play kick-to-kick on the very patch of grass where, minutes before, their heroes stood. The youngest ones ride wide-eyed on their fathersí shoulders.
This tradition dates from the earliest days of Australian Rules in the latter years of the 19th century. Then, the game was played in public parks which were reclaimed by the people after the final whistle. For me, it epitomises much that is delightfully different about AFL. It is a tradition which, thanks to the inflexibility of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, has been denied here. I doubt we will see it revived at Homebush.
Donít get me wrong. I expect and want Sydney to be a successful, growing and financially secure AFL club. My mind is not utterly closed to Stadium Australia. But, as football culture is riddled with cliches, let me conclude with two.
Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. And be nice to the fans you collected on the way up. You might need them.
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